CHRISTMAS AND CHRISTIANS

First off, thanks to Andrew for having us on – though I’m skeptical that our host will actually be able to lay off the blogging over the next couple weeks, looming book deadline or no. (He’s done, what, five posts in the hour since he announced his semi-hiatus?) And in the spirit of the season, I’ll start by agreeing with him about the Christmas wars – the only thing more annoying than the killjoys who want to keep creches off town greens is listening to Bill O’Reilly or John Gibson rant about how it’s all part of an insidious plot, cooked up in some secret lair where Barry Lynn, John Shelby Spong and the editorial board of the New York Times gather to guzzle eggnog and plan the destruction of all that is good and holy. To the extent that the real meaning (or the “original intent,” if you will) of the season has suffered serious damage, the PC nonsense is just a flesh wound – the real de-Christianization of Christmas is being carried out, as it has been for some time, by the frenetic pace of modern life, and the crassifying tendencies of commerce. I’m all for public acknowledgment of the holiday, and all against the fashionable mult-culti silliness that’s more comfortable talking up minor Jewish holidays and defunct pagan observances than admitting that we’re mainly celebrating Christ’s birth at this time of year. But what does it say about the state of American Christianity that we’re being asked to rise in righteous fury over the number of references to Christmas on Wal-Mart’s website?

(Of course, if you’re an Ayn Rand devotee, this could be taken as a sign that things are proceeding exactly according to plan . . .)

Still, there’s a reason that the Fox News conspiracy-mongering touches a nerve, and it’s encapsulated by the latest New Yorker, where Hendrik Hertzberg passes a page or two in mocking Gibson and O’Reilly, and then cedes the floor to Laura Miller’s profile of Philip Pullman. Why profile Pullman, an author whose last book was released three years ago? Because he hates C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, of course – or rather, Narnia specifically and Christianity generally – and because Narnia and its themes are on everyone’s lips these days. Inevitably, the profile is glowing, if not worshipful: Pullman’s assertions go unchallenged, his motivations go unplumbed, and there’s no hint that his militant atheism lends his fiction precisely the lecturing, bullying, force-feeding quality that he claims to dislike so much in the Narnia books. (And who, after all, could object to a writer whose “fundamental objection is to ideological tyranny”?) Whereas of course when the New Yorker dealt with poor benighted Lewis a few weeks ago, the essay was all about how nice and swell the Narnia books are, but how much better they would have been if it hadn’t been for all that annoying dogmatic stuff – and by the way, did we mention that Lewis had a “weird and complicated sex life”? Oh, and Merry Christmas.

The New Yorker is just a microcosm, but the larger reality is that while there isn’t a war against Christmas, there is a significant chunk of this country – the most educated chunk, the chunk that runs the high-minded magazines and writes for the big newspapers and makes most of the movies (the sudden interest in the Christian market notwithstanding) and teaches at the major universities and generally controls the commanding heights of the culture – that doesn’t much care for Christianity, at least if it’s practiced seriously and its basic dogmas are left intact. This reality is what drives the siege mentality among many Christians, and the popularity of O’Reilly-style conspiracy theorizing – the awareness that our majority-Christian country is saddled, for some reason, with an elite that approaches religious belief with a mix of bemusement, ignorance, and fear.

Of course the other side, the secular elite, feels under siege as well – they’re in the minority, they don’t control the the government, they thought we were past all that Christianity stuff, and they can’t quite understand why a twenty-first century educated class should have to put up with a bunch of benighted yahoos who buy tickets to The Passion of the Christ and elect Presidents like George W. Bush. (The Europeans don’t have to deal with this kind of nonsense, after all . . .) So everybody feels disempowered, and everybody has a point – which is why the Christmas wars are fake, but the culture war is real.

– posted by Ross

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